At the bottom of the hill, the road dipped and rose through the foothills, scrub and trees thinning out as the sky opened up across the flatlands. Here and there green paddocks still stretched between blocks of squat houses, and in the distance the roof of a giant shopping mall caught the sun, gleaming like a beacon.
I started to scan around for a petrol station, one eye on the fuel gauge, even though I knew it didn’t work properly. I could never remember where things were out here, it was all so flat and featureless. Maybe past this stretch of houses, maybe in the next small town? If I was lucky I’d have enough gas to get back to the city. I had no idea.
I lost my nerve at the traffic lights that marked the beginning of the motorway, swerving left at the last minute into the lane that turned off to the suburban streets. I didn’t want to run out of petrol on the open road. Bloody Clarkey. Why did he drive such a shit old car.
I prowled around the grids of little houses: clotheslines, garage doors, lawns and letterboxes. A rage was building inside me. For a while I didn’t notice that there were no other cars on the road. I was used to the suburbs being empty. You hardly ever saw people wandering around, just strolling. Everybody drove everywhere. Drive the kids to the park, the dog to the dog park. Drive your bike to the bike park. But there was no sign of life here anywhere, and it began to dawn on me that there was nobody around at all.
I waited at the next intersection, giving way to nothing, chewing my knuckle. I’d never liked it out here. It felt too new, brittle in the landscape. Too flat, and wide open to the sky. Too temporary. But now it was even worse. Where was everyone?
A car behind me honked its horn and I jumped, adrenaline washing through me. I glanced in the rearview mirror: an ordinary white hatchback, an ordinary looking woman mouthing something at me. As I stared at her she turned her wheel abruptly and drove up alongside me to pass. But she stopped.
‘Lost?’ she called through her window at me, as it hummed down smoothly.
I stared at her for a beat, then wound my window down. ‘Um, is there a petrol station around here?’
She nodded, pointed back the way I’d come.
‘They’re still there. Second left, then left again, then third on your right.’
This made no sense. And what did she mean they’re still there? While I was still trying to collect my thoughts she screeched off around the corner.
I went back the way I’d come, counting the streets off as I crawled past. My rage returned as I realised I didn’t know what street I was looking for, she could have at least told me its name. I was driving down a long, straight road in the thick of suburbia, with no idea how to get back to the highway – looking for non-existent streets to turn into, and about to run out of gas.
It was my mother’s fault. She’d called me all the way out to her place in a panic, and she didn’t need me anyway. Now I was stuck miles from home. I knew it was her I was upset about, not the stupid petrol gauge or the useless directions, but that didn’t help. It was like observing myself through glass; an interesting specimen, about to have a major meltdown. I turned on the radio to distract myself, scared that if I started crying I would never be able to stop. I dialled through the stations and the static for some music or a comforting voice.
Finally I saw the second street on the right. I wanted to turn into it – had I missed one? But I made myself keep going, looking for the third.
I sped up when I saw it, and took the corner much too fast. The third street on the right. In the distance I could see the petrol station sign, and the white curves of the awnings over the pumps. Thank god. I paused on the street outside, reluctant to turn onto the forecourt. My mouth dry, I stared at the car parked beside the far side of the pumps. An expensive-looking dark blue sedan. So what I said to myself, heart racing, there’s a car at the petrol station. But after all the emptiness of the streets around, it frightened me.
I looked at the dark shopfront behind the pumps. It seemed deserted. They’re still there, she’d said, but it didn’t look like it. I swallowed and made myself drive in, trying to remember which side Clarkey’s petrol cap was on.
There was nobody in the blue car. I checked it from behind my sunglasses as I filled the tank, the stink of petrol wafting up from the nozzle and making my head swim. I turned back to the dark glass-fronted building as the counter clicked over to my $20 limit. It was all the cash I had. I jammed the nozzle back into the pump and walked self-consciously towards the automatic doors, unsure if there was someone in there watching me.
The doors slid open in a very normal way, but I hesitated on the threshold. In the dim light I couldn’t see anyone. ‘Hello?’ I called, and took a step in.
The doors shut behind me and I looked back, panicked, waving my hand at them to make sure they would open again when I needed them. Stupid. A faint light came from the pie-warmer on the counter, and the fridges full of cans and bottled water glowed and hummed against the wall on my right. But all the lights were off.
‘Yes?’ came a bored voice from behind the counter, and I nearly wet myself. For a moment I stood rooted to the spot, willing myself to walk over there like a normal person.
‘Ah, pump number four,’ I said, holding out the 20.
‘We don’t take those,’ he said.
I looked at the note in my hand. ‘Um, you don’t take cash?’ I was pretty sure that wasn’t even legal.
He jerked his head at a sign beside the counter. CARDS ONLY NO CASH. ‘Too much counterfeits around,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s in here with their fake plastic money.’
I did a slow turn, looking round the shop. ‘Everyone?’ I asked, ‘Where are they all?’
He scowled, then leaned out over the counter and snatched the note out of my hand, examining it carefully in the light from his cellphone.
‘91?’ he asked, ‘Or 95?’ He stuck the 20 bucks in his pocket.
‘Uh, 95,’ I said, wondering why this mattered if he wasn’t going to ring it up on the till.
‘Lucky,’ he said, and laughed. He looked unhinged. The more I looked at him the less I liked him, and I took a step back towards the doors, ready to run. I was starting to feel I didn’t even know how to finish this transaction.
‘Fella out there filled up with 91,’ he called after me as I backed away, keeping my eyes on him. ‘Tank’s full of grit.’ He laughed again, a mad staccato like a yapping dog. ‘Not going anywhere now!’
I stood there in the rain like an idiot, trying to understand what he meant.
I wanted to go over and look at the blue car but I didn’t want the man to watch me do it. I looked hesitantly over my shoulder. The sooner I got out of here the better – whatever was up with the petrol pumps. I silently thanked Clarkey for driving such a shit old car that it ran on 95.
A van turned in and pulled onto the forecourt. A man in overalls and a hi-viz vest jumped out, and I watched while he unlocked his petrol cap and jammed in the 91 nozzle. It made the strangest noise. By this stage I’d got myself back into the car. I didn’t want to see what happened next.
‘Hey!’ he yelled – maybe at me, maybe at the attendant. But it wasn’t my problem. I drove off, not looking in my rear view mirror until I was safely back on the motorway.